Tonight, we have come together to do what the writer of the books of Maccabees insist is a holy and pious thing: to pray for the souls of the dead. We have come together also to do what the Liturgy of the Rite of Christian Burial tells us to do: to pray also for ourselves. We gather to care for our loved ones who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, and we gather to let our Lord care for us, we who have been touched by love and wounded by loss, that we might be graced by faith.
I love what the third Eucharistic Prayer offers for Masses for the dead. We’ll use it tonight, as I do for almost every funeral, but it’s nice sometimes to reflect on those words and let them enter into our prayer more fully. I’m going to break it down and reflect on each section of it. So the prayer begins: “Remember your servant … whom you have called from this world to yourself. Grant that he (she) who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection…” Here the Church recognizes that our God does not leave us alone in death. Death was never God’s will for the human person, rather death came as a remedy for sin, as Saint Paul reminds us so well. Saint Ambrose writes that if death had not been introduced, living life in this broken world without end would have been an unbelievable, unbearable burden. Death gives us the possibility of new life in the kingdom of God, with the freedom that he always intended for us. Notice too, that in this prayer, the Church recognizes that our God, whose intent is always for our salvation, took on our lowly form and assumed all its defects, including the capacity to die. And so of the many ways that we are united with our Lord, one of them is through death. And we recognize that as death was not the end for him, so if we have faith and follow our Lord, it will not be the end for us either.
The prayer continues: “…when from the earth he will raise up in the flesh those who have died, and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body.” Just as we have been united in death with our Lord, so he intends that we would be united with him in resurrection. Our Lord intends that the glory of the Resurrection of our Lord would open for us the way to the Kingdom of God, that Kingdom for which we were created in the first place, that Kingdom which is the destination of our life-long journey. In resurrection, we will be transformed. The weaknesses of our flesh will be redeemed, our woundedness will be bound up, our diseases will be healed, our sin will be wiped away, leaving nothing but the radiant glory of the very face of God. Can you even imagine how wonderful that glory will be? Holy Church teaches and insists that our bodies are not so profane nor so damaged that they can’t become glorious, by being united with our Lord in resurrection.
We continue to pray: “To our departed brothers and sisters, too, and to all who were pleasing to you at their passing from this life, give kind admittance into your kingdom.” Here the Church acknowledges that the dead depend on our prayers. We implore the Lord to give admittance to the Kingdom to our loved ones. We pray that their sins would be forgiven, that their weaknesses would be overlooked, that their relationships would be purified, that whatever was less than glorious in them might be made fit for the Kingdom of God. The Church recognizes that most of our dead brothers and sisters continue their journey to the Kingdom after death. They do it with different, more splendid graces than we have on this earth, they take it up with perhaps fewer distractions than those that divert our attention from the goal. Whatever is not purified on earth can and must be purified by the gift of Purgatory, for those who have faith, and for those who need grace.
Finally, the Church recognizes that we are all headed for the same goal, we and our loved ones who have died. The prayer says: “There we hope to enjoy for ever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes. For seeing you, our God, as you are, we shall be like you for all the ages and praise you without end, through Christ our Lord, through whom you bestow in the world all that is good.” The Kingdom is where all of our sadness is erased, and with eyes free from the tears of this life, we can finally see God as he is, and not as we would have him. We can then be like him, caught up, really, in his life, one with him forever in Christ, receiving all that is good for all eternity.
Our greatest work of charity is to pray that our deceased loved ones would receive all these graces, this wondrous and holy gifts, from our God, who deeply longs that each one of his children would return to be one with him. In praying for them, the Church extends its ministry to all of us who mourn, enabling us to know the love of God in our time of grief and sadness. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, all who believe in him will not die forever. Death was never intended as our forever, as our final stop. For to God, all are alive, just in different ways. Praise God that he gives us life, and mercy, and grace, and resurrection.
Eternal rest grant unto all of our loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.